Over 550 book reviews with full author links

28 April 2014

James Lee Burke: Wayfaring Stranger

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Modern morality story of good and evil
This is a very different James Lee Burke (JLB) novel to his popular Dave Robicheaux detective thrillers. This is a book about good and evil in life seen through the eyes of Weldon Holland who grew up in Texas during the Depression, fought in WWII and returned home to try to make his fortune. It is written by a master storyteller whose prose, as usual, is remarkable and atmospheric.

Weldon's first brush with good and evil came when infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow drove onto his Grandfather's property. He was immediately captured by Bonnie's beauty, an impression that never left him, but things changed when they came back the next day after a bank robbery went bad. After one of them spat on his Grandfather as they drove away Weldon fired a shot through the car's back window. This first dramatic encounter with good and evil never left him.

During WWII Weldon saw real evil, especially when Second Lieutenant Holland and his Sergeant, Hershel Pine, were caught behind enemy lines and to escape boarded an empty freight train that took them to a death camp that had been abandoned by the fleeing SS. Among a pile of emaciated bodies Weldon finds 23 year old Rosita Lowenstein who is just alive. Rosita is Jewish and had grown up in Madrid and her parents were famous Communists who fought for the Republic. Weldon and Hershell carry Rosita as she slowly regains her strength while they find the way back to their lines. They get parted when Weldon goes back to the front but his blooming attraction for for Rosita sends him across Europe after the war to find her again. They marry and return to Texas.

After the war Hershell encourages Weldon to seek their fortunes in the oil business using a new pipeline welding process. There they find different forms of evil in the greed of unfettered capitalism, corruption, bigotry, anti-semitism, anti-communism and violence that attack them from all angles. It is a new battle where people don't just want your possessions, they want your soul. Hershell's wife, Linda Gail, aspires to be a Hollywood actress and encounters similar demons along the way that impact on all of their lives.

They meet Roy Wiseheart (the "Wayfaring Stranger"), an enigmatic wealthy person with many business connections who has a questionable history as a war hero. Roy "befriends" them although it is not clear if he is friend or enemy. Roy's wife Clara is a bitter and intolerant anti-Semite who tries to make Weldon and Rosita’s life a nightmare. His father, Dalton, a totally unscrupulous oil baron, whose business strategy with difficult people is "make them wince", does the same.

As always JLB's superb descriptive  prose is an outstanding feature of the book. The book is also filled with memorable characters. I especially liked Weldon's description of his commanding officer, Lloyd Fincher. "... Major Fincher is widely regarded as a dangerous idiot....someone said the German army has been trying to find him for years to award him the Iron Cross". Fincher is just as dangerous after the war when he offers to help Weldon's business.

The ending showed that under great stress good people will take action to protect themselves. It also demonstrates the power of love, the good that lies in most people, and that truth can sometimes win over direct action.

I am a fan of JLB and this is a landmark and very different novel by a master storyteller. It is part love story, part family/historical saga, part thriller and in total I consider it is a modern morality story. JLB is now 77 years old and I suspect that this is the book he has wanted to write for some time. It will certainly remain in my memory for some time. Highly recommended for discerning readers.  

24 April 2014

David Baldacci: The Target

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Another busy time for the Hit Team
This is the third in the Will Robie series about a CIA hit man who finds he has a bit of a conscience about what he is doing. It is the second featuring Jessica Reel, another CIA assassin who is as good, if not sometimes better, than Robie. Any politico/CIA assassin thriller like this one needs to be read with your believability escapist button pressed.

Robie and Reel are still teamed up (platonically) after "The Hit" where Reel went rogue to prevent world disaster planned by senior people in Washington including the CIA. While both of them have been awarded top secret CIA medals for stopping the disaster, the current head of the CIA, Evan Tucker, is still uncomfortable with what happened. When an assignment of impeachable impact is ordered by the President, Tucker first wants to "recalibrate" his top assassins at the CIA's Burner Box training facility. This recalibration goes far further than anyone expected making them think that Tucker would not be concerned if they didn't return from their next assignment.

This time the focus is also on the personal history of Jessica Reel and this takes up an unnecessarily big chunk of almost unrelated plot. The rest is focussed on the real assignment and its aftermath. The story has a little of everything for fans of escapist adventure - high jinks on death row, kidnapping, neo-Nazis, North Korean concentration camps and trained assassins, Presidential guilt trips and payback time. Of course the body count is substantial. At times some of this was too much for my believability barometer to cope with (especially when Robie and Reel became role models for the President's children).

The crux, but not the detail, of the finale was pretty clear a long time from the end of the book. Baldacci left a number of pointers in the book to suggest that another is planned.

As usual with Baldacci, this was page-turning action which will be lapped up by his many fans. However this time I finished up a bit disappointed (3.5 stars) because the story verged too much into the unbelievable with a lot of unnecessary padding.

19 April 2014

Karin Slaughter: Cop Town

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Powerful and emotional story of a lost era
This is undoubtedly one of the best thrillers I will read this year. In "Cop Town" Karin Slaughter steps out with a stunning, powerful, gritty, emotional and very different stand-alone novel set in Atlanta in 1974, then one of the most violent cities in America. While the story is stunning so is Slaughter's character building, especially with Kate Murphy, a rookie female cop from a privileged background facing the macho dominated Atlanta PD of the time.

In 1974 Atlanta is a city at the start of a dramatic change in its culture with the election of African Americans to be Mayor and Chief of Police. The police force is still predominantly white males fighting to preserve their power in a rapidly changing environment. They are chauvinists, racist, macho, bigoted and many are Vietnam vets. Most of them have little time for rookies, especially females.

Kate is a beautiful young white woman still recovering from the death of her husband in Vietnam. Despite her wealthy background she is determined to make her way on her own and chooses to do this in the world of the police force. On her first day she has to run a gauntlet of groping of male cops who have little mercy for a rookie, especially a female. She meets another somewhat unsympathetic white female cop, Maggie Lawson, from a less privileged background who joined her uncle and brother into the force to show that she was as good as they were.

The force is facing a deadly challenge by a serial killer who is targeting cops, and the partner of Maggie's brother Jimmy had been killed the previous day. On her first day Kate is partnered with Jimmy as the force goes out on a city-wide search for the killer, with some prepared to take the law into their hands to avenge their own. Kate also joins Maggie and Gail, an undercover cop posing as a hooker, chasing clues to the killer to round up some traumatic first days on the job.

Kate meets people and goes to places she would never encounter before and is seriously is tested. She tells her family that Gail is one one of the most awful people but she's also one of the nicest people she had ever met in her life. Her father (a psychiatrist) tells her "Evil people can do good, and good people can do evil".

There follows an exciting chase through the worst parts of Atlanta to find the killer, but the killer always seems to be ahead of them. This is a fast paced and often emotional novel about people pushed to the limit by a madman and a young woman struggling to keep up with what is happening. In parts it is not for the faint hearted but in others it is really emotionally warming.

Karin Slaughter has made this a very different type of thriller by setting it in a dangerous era.  She is totally at the top of her game with this new standalone thriller, laced with atmospheric and gritty descriptions, great action, and above all a set of unforgettable characters. While Karin Slaughter has written other outstanding thrillers this one could outshine all of them. Highly recommended.

My thanks to The Reading Room and the publisher for providing an advanced reading copy of this book for review.

18 April 2014

Justin Go: The Steady Running of the Hour

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A parallel plot dilemma
Because there have been so many novels about WWI, Justin Go probably tried to make his story different by adding a parallel plot based in the present day. The book is a mixture of a WWI romance/war/climbing/tragedy and a modern sleuth story to find the descendents of the people in the WWI story - a parallel plot that IMHO really doesn't work that well.

Tristan Campbell has just finished college in LA when he gets a letter from a solicitor in London about a possible legacy from the 1920's that has never been never claimed. After nearly 80 years the trustees for a huge estate left by Ashley Walsingham, who was killed trying to climb Everest in 1924, have not identified the beneficiary. The trustees have new information that make them think that Tristan may be the descendant of Imogen Soames-Anderson, mentioned in the will, who knew Ashley briefly just before he left for the front in 1916. The real problem is that Tristan only has a few weeks to prove his heritage before the estate is distributed to other beneficiaries.

The book eloquently describes the forbidden affair between Imogen, an independent minded young woman, and Ashley and the tragic consequences of the affair amid the conflicts of war. The descriptions of war are well written and harrowing. Ashley's climbing adventures give a great insight into early mountaineering in the Himalayas. Imogen's experiences in a Downton Abbey kind of environment are painful.

Tristan embarks on a chase around Europe for evidence of Ashley and Imogen's relationship and her disappearance after the war. The more he learns the less he understands and the clock is ticking.

I found Go's writing was compelling, especially for a debut novel, but  the use of the em dash instead of quotation marks for dialogue was hard to follow. The real problem I had with the book was that I got lost keeping up with the parallel stories from the present and past. While I concentrated on the present, descriptions of the past almost became as distraction to be skipped through to the next chapter about the present. IMHO the book would have been much better as a standalone WWI novel than an interwoven mixture of two stories that left me unsatisfied because I found it difficult to know which story to follow. I was also disappointed by the inconclusive endings for both plots - I expected more from such a long and complex story.

My thanks to The Reading Room and the publisher for a copy of the book.

14 April 2014

Nicci French: Thursday's Children

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Interesting Psychological mystery about a Psychotherapist
This is a well written interesting psychological mystery featuring Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist who has been a bit of a trouble magnet in earlier books in the series (Blue Monday, Tuesday's Gone and Waiting for Wednesday) written by wife and husband duo Nicci Gerard and Sean French.

Frieda is reflecting that Thursday is the worst day of the week when she has an unexpected visitor from her past that changes her world. Maddie Cappel was at school with Freida twenty three years ago in Braxton, a small town north of London. Maddie asks Frieda to talk to her teenage daughter, Becky, who has become withdrawn and won't eat. Becky tells Frieda that she was raped during a home invasion by a man wearing a balaclava who says "Don't think of telling anyone sweetheart. Nobody will believe you."

This is an epiphany for Frieda as she recalls the very same words being said to her years ago when she was raped in Braxton when she was sixteen. She did tell her mother and the police but they didn't believe her. Frieda left home for London and had never gone back again. The frightening thing is that it is clear that the rapist is still there and still active.

During her troubled times Frieda has been in therapy but has never been able to tell anyone about this experience. Now she knows that she must face up to her ghosts, tell her circle of close and loving friends in London about it and go to Braxton to find out what happened on that night twenty three years ago when she was the only member of her peer group who missed going to a pop concert with "Thursday's Children".

The authors then takes us back to Braxton to see what has happened to Frieda's group of school friends. In a few paragraphs they are able to clearly sketch the character of each school friend and what they have become over the last twenty three years. The reunion with some is easy but others have moved on and away from Frieda and are suspicious about her return. Freida goes back to her mother, to the police who investigated her case and hunts for the member of her group who might have attacked her. It is an interesting study of the impact of going back to a small town community that she has moved on from many years ago.

Overall I enjoyed this well written psychological mystery. Most of the time it is a standalone book but there are a couple of important links to characters in Frieda's other adventures that didn't allow me to fully appreciate the story. At the moment I haven't made up my mind about whether I will be re-visiting her adventures on earlier days of the week.

Parker Bilal: The Ghost Runner

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A very different and evocative mystery
Congratulations to Parker Bilal for giving us a gripping, skillfully written different kind of mystery. This mystery is set in Cairo and Siwa, a small oasis based town near the border with Libya, just after 7/11 and the start of the war on terror. It features private investigator Makana, a former Sudanese police inspector who fled to Egypt after a fierce regime change.

Makana is just making a living as a PI in Egypt when he gets commissioned by a top lawyer, Magdy Ragab, to find the killer of Karima Khyer who he had been supporting. The most obvious suspect for the horrific arson is her father Musab Khyar, an unscrupulous gangster, smuggler and possible jihadist as an honour killing because he suspects that Karima is not his biological daughter. But at last report Musab is in political asylum in Denmark, surprisingly arranged by Rageb. Makana is helped by Zahra Sharif, an aid worker for women's rights who had also befriended Karima and knows a lot more about her family history.

To track down the background to Karima's death Makana travels to Siwa, a town renowned for dates, olive oil , some tourism and smuggling. In a remote small town environment Siwa looks after its own affairs in its own ways. Makana's questions are not welcomed, especially by Sergeant Hamama the current chief of police, until Hamana is faced with a murder and mutilation of the town's highest legal official, the Qadi. Out of his depth in a murder investigation Hamana does a deal to get Makana to help him. Despite this there are few people who remember Karima's family who are prepared to help him and in many cases they are downright unhelpful. Then another murder mutilation occurs and Hamana arrests a possible suspect who he is sure will end the case. Makana is not convinced that the murderer has been identified and his deal with Hamana collapses.

Bilal then spins us a very complex tale of deception, corruption and murder which envelopes and entwines itself throughout the community in Siwa. He gives us clues that get solved unexpectedly later in the book, one time very explosively. A phantom woman (the ghost runner) who may be associated with the killings is one of the clues. The final chapters are a well schemed mixture of the expected and the unexpected. Corruption, smuggling, drug and gun running, and greed to benefit from a big gas project abound.

The Ghost is written in elegant and descriptive prose rarely found in a popular mystery novel - James Lee Burke comes to mind in US mysteries. Bilal evokes new, exciting, different and dangerous settings for crime fiction which are a world away from from normal scenarios in the streets of the US and the UK. While the basic scenario is in a Muslim world this is mainly peripheral to the action but essential to the way that the main characters live and act. It is a different and very evocative mystery novel.

Parker Bilal was born in London and has lived at times in the UK, Sudan, Egypt, Denmark and currently in Barcelona. His life experiences fuel his writing and bring us to places and things that many of us will never visit or understand. This is a standalone novel in the Makana mysteries but I am sure that I will get to know more about Makana as I am now keen to read the first two books in the series. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a different perspective of the world through an entertaining, intelligent and thought provoking mystery novel.

My thanks to The Reading Room and the publisher for a copy of this book for my review.

07 April 2014

Nora Roberts: The Collector

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A great mix of Nora Roberts' formulas
Many Nora Roberts fans worry that she writes her many books following a repetitive formula that have been overused - the romantic formula  in her Harlequin type books, romantic suspense in more recent books like THE WITNESS and detective thrillers when she writes the In Death series as J D Robb. In THE COLLECTOR Roberts has mixed up the formulas to make a pretty entertaining, somewhat different, romantic suspense thriller which even throws in an attractive Asian female sociopathic killer and some torture to spice up the mixture.

Lila Emerson loves her nomadic life as a house-sitter for wealthy clients. She stays in some fantastic homes throughout the world looking after the home, the pets and anything else to make her clients' happy. She spends her spare time writing successful YA Werewolf style novels. In between house sits she stays with her twice divorced best friend Julie. Many of the houses have great views and she always takes binoculars in her pared down luggage.

Her latest housesitting is a luxury apartment in central NYC which has great views of apartments across the way. Late one evening Lila is looking through her binoculars at a nearby apartment when she sees an attractive woman being attacked by an unidentifiable person. Within seconds the woman is pushed through the window and falls many floors to her death. Her male partner is found dead in the apartment by the police, with signs of apparent suicide, which quickly turns out to be an execution..

Through the police investigation the male victim's brother, Ashley Archer, a handsome successful artist from a very wealthy family, seeks out Lila for more information. There is immediate attraction especially when he asks her to pose for him. As they get together personally they also start to work out what is happening. Things get worse when another member of Ash's family is murdered and Ash and Lila are stalked by a paid female assassin Jai Maddock, who is wanted by INTERPOL for several murders. Jai is working as a mercenary for an unknown  unscrupulous very wealthy "Collector" of antique objects d'art. A fascinating thing about her character is her practice to take something valuable or fashionable from anywhere she goes or breaks into - shoes, jewelry, and even lipstick and perfume.

What follows has something for everyone's tastes. Two romances, family stresses and an increasing body count as the cold blooded killer tracks down people associated with a valuable and historic piece of missing international jewelry. While the police are involved, Lila and Ash and her friends need to get together to plan how to flush out "The Collector".

As the book cover says "Either way Lila will never watch from the sidelines again...." This book has a bit of everything for Nora Roberts' fans which may, or may not, subdue the comments about overuse of the Robert's formula. Whatever people think I am sure that it will be this year's bestseller for Nora Roberts.

My thanks to The Reading Room and the publisher for providing an Advance Reading Copy of this book. I requested the book for my wife, who really enjoyed it, but as usual I finished up reading it myself.

Melissa F Miller: Critical Vulnerability: (A Sasha McCandless Companion Novel)

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Another gutsy heroine from Melissa Miller
This is another entertaining page-turning legal thriller from Melissa F Miller, featuring a new gutsy legal "heroine" Aroostine Higgins. While the title says that it is a Sasha McCandless companion novel, it is clear that Miller is testing the water for an Aroostine Higgins series.

Aroostine is a junior Assistant US Attorney working in the Department of Justice's Criminal Division in Washington. She has moved from being a small town attorney to Washington and left behind her husband Joe who is not comfortable in big cities. She has been given an important case prosecuting two men accused of attempting to bribe a foreign government official when everything starts to go wrong.

While Sasha has fearsome martial arts skills to protect her, Aroostine has the tracking skills she learned from her Native American grandfather. She can commune with nature and understand what is happening around her. She needs all of her skills when the major case she is working on goes very wrong when all of her work and judicial submissions are wiped from the legal network. Then to make her life worse she gets an unexpected delivery - divorce papers from Joe.

The case is bigger than anyone imagines as international gangsters get involved in trying to penetrate the many automated network systems of major businesses and government by putting pressure on the software expert who developed the systems to delete court files to kill the case by kidnapping his mother. Aroostine gets involved in a race against time to foil the kidnapper and win the case. Then the kidnapping also becomes very personal for Aroostine.

Melissa Miller shows us once again that she is at the top of the class of Indie authors of legal thrillers. Her books are entertaining, easy reading and page-turning legal thrillers featuring interesting female leads facing up to and winning in virtually impossible situations. She has built up a fan following who will lap up this new book and they will be pleased that she is already working on the next book in the Aroostine Higgins series, "Chilling Effect" for release in the US Fall. Before that she will release another in the Sasha McCandless series "Irrevocable Trust" in the US Summer.

04 April 2014

Edward Rutherford: New York

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A great history of one of the world's greatest cities
I have read several of Edward Rutherford's historical sagas about different cities throughout the world. This book is probably the one that has stayed in my memory for the longest because it not only tells the tale of a great city but it is also a tale of one of the world's great nations, from its beginning to the present day.

Rutherford told me about New York's Indian beginnings with the the Iroquoi and the Algonquians and first land claim by the Dutch culminating in 1626 with the purchase of the island of Manhattan from Native Americans. In 1664, England renamed the colony New York, after the Duke of York and it became the prime port of the 13 colonies. It also featured strongly in the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence.

What especially fascinated me was the early history of Wall Street which may have originally been the site of an earthen wall on the northern boundary of the New Amsterdam settlement, built to protect against English colonial encroachment or incursions by native Americans. Such a difference to the present day canyon of tall buildings which is still the financial heart of the world economy.

Rutherford tells the tale of New York through the eyes of the inhabitants along the ages - the Indians, the colonial masters, the revolutionaries and especially the ordinary people and things who made New York the special place that it is - the African slaves, the Irish labourers, and the immigrants. Through their lives he follows the history of the city from the early days through to the 1929 stock market crash and eventually to the world shattering events of 9/11.

It is a long read but it was an easy way for me, as an Aussie, to be able to start to understand the key place played by New York and its people in world events over the last few centuries. Highly recommended as one of the best fictional histories of this great city.

03 April 2014

Thomas Keneally: Schindler's List

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An astounding history of Oskar Schindler
Thomas Keneally's Man Booker Prize winning novel about how Oscar Schindler saved around 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust is one of the most astounding factual historical stories I have read. Many of you will have seen Spielberg's excellent film of "Schindlers' List". The novel on which it is based gives the reader a better understanding of Schindler than can be conveyed in a 3 hour movie.

Keneally was inspired to write the book when he met Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor, who had extensive files about Schindler. Before writing the book Keneally had discussions with survivors (mostly "Schindlerjuden" - Schindler Jews) in many countries, including  Australia, Israel, West Germany, Austria, the United States, Argentina, and Brazil. Keneally uses the devices of a novel to describe the enigmatic and ambiguous character of Schindler and how he risked his own life to help many Jews and eventually to save some of them from the death camps. Keneally dedicated the book to Pfefferberg: "who by zeal and persistence caused this book to be written."

Oskar Schindler was born in Austria but moved to Cracow in Poland just before the war. There he acted as a model German as a member of a party affiliated to the Nazis and wore a Swastika lapel badge. Oskar was a salesman and a dealer by temperament who knew that at that time when you went in to a German company manager wearing the badge, you got the order. Through his many contacts Schindler profited from the Jewish demise, gaining a large apartment and acquiring an enamel factory making cooking and eating utensils in great demand by the military. He employs many Jews in his factory at low wages who are being forced by the SS to live in the cramped and increasingly dangerous Cracow ghetto.

Schindler is an enigmatic character, an entrepreneur and salesman, a womaniser, a boozer, a black marketeer, and a manipulator who is never afraid to use any form of bribery to get what he wants. His social and drinking circle includes most of the senior SS in the region many of whom are violent sociopaths involved with the ultimate solution to the "Jewish problem". Even when he gets permission to set up his own camp next to his factory and provides extra food for the prisoners at his expense from the black market he was still socialising with SS officers in charge of death camps. His womanising continues and he was even spotted by his staff when he was skinny dipping in a water tank with an attractive, and frequently brutal, female SS guard.

Why did Schindler finish up risking his life to help and save so many Jews? You will have to read this meticulously researched book to attempt an answer. One suggestion in the book is that one day Schindler saw the SS expelling Jews from the Cracow ghetto, and executing those who didn't comply. He experienced an epiphany so that “Beyond this day,” he would claim, “no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.”

This is a fascinating, memorable but frequently brutal masterpiece of a book. It is a an inside story of one of the most terrible times in human history. Keneally tells the story in a somewhat dispassionate way that allows the reader to try to understand what really happened. It is also a good news story - for the few Schindlerjuden - and is emotionally heartwarming as they supported Schindler after the war. Many of the the Schindlerjuden became successful in business, qualified as doctors and lawyers, and became Judges and influential members of their adopted countries. Israel acknowledged what Schindler did and his final resting place is in a Catholic cemetery in Jerusalem.